Let’s start with a beginning.
Sitting in the stalls of the newly plastic-swathed Lyric Hammersmith this September, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such palpable anticipation in the moments before a show. As suggested by the words “Secret Theatre”, most of us in the audience did not know quite what to expect. The curtain was eventually raised to reveal the performers in a line at the back of the stage, dressed in plain white shorts and vests. Accompanied by a sinister, clinical voiceover, these figures rushed forward to drink from bowls of water, scrambling over one another in a desperate, animalistic struggle. What followed might not have been the best show of the year, but it is hard to think of a more memorable opening.
As I attempt to craft some sort of assessment of the year in theatre, the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre project feels like an apt emblem for the change that is slowly pressing in on multiple sides. This time last year, writing another of these deeply subjective round-ups, I reflected that 2012 felt like a year of “small tectonic shifts”. While those shifts might not have precipitated a violent eruption of change across the landscape of British theatre, the last 12 months have nonetheless seen ripples of movement – just more gradually than perhaps anticipated.
Unlike the noisy, thrilling arrival of Three Kingdoms last year, the changes of 2013 have been subtle and structural, hinting more at future promise than present fulfilment. Chief among these changes is the exciting wave of new artistic directors who have either taken up post or been announced: Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court, Rupert Goold at the Almeida, Rufus Norris at the National Theatre, Lorne Campbell at Northern Stage, Sam Hodges at the Nuffield. Whether these appointments will really offer the shake-up they hint at is still to be seen – though the early signs of Featherstone’s tenure are encouraging – but the collective urge for new ways of working is clear.
The impetus towards change is also characteristic of one vein of work that has particularly stayed with me this year. The phrase “political theatre” always feels like a misnomer – isn’t all theatre political in some way? – but a clutch of angry, thoughtful and passionate productions in 2013 have dealt specifically with ideas of political change and protest. How to Occupy an Oil Rig playfully explored the demonstration (in every sense), while Hannah Nicklin’s A Conversation with my Father offered a decidedly personal perspective on protest – almost reducing me to tears in the process. And another kind of activism is at the heart of Bryony Kimmings’ bold and brilliant Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel project, which twice bowled me over with both its raw emotion and the galvanising ambition of its aims.
Elsewhere, the potential for future change was more lightly hinted at. At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Dan Hutton and I noted the theme of hope that threaded its way through several of the productions we saw, complicatedly paired with both critique and irony. Contrived as this narrative perhaps is, it is one that has retrospectively haunted many of this year’s shows, inflecting my way of watching and thinking about theatre. From its very explicit presence in what happens to the hope at the end of the evening to its troublesome ghost in The Events, the question of hope has been a key feature of much of the most interesting work I’ve seen over the past 12 months.
Closely linked to hope is the idea of community, which is often vaunted as being at the heart of theatre as an art form. We share the same space in the theatre, after all, so we must be a community of sorts, right? This was tested in various ways by much of the best theatre of 2013, be it the stunning yet gentle intellectual interrogation of Chris Goode and Company’s The Forest and the Field or the joyously communal celebration of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart – which arguably nailed the whole thing by staging itself in a pub and throwing in some song and dance for good measure.
Similarly to Prudencia Hart, music was a key ingredient of the fleeting community forged night after night in Edinburgh by The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project; food took the same role in Only Wolves and Lions, reminding me of the simple community we build when we cook and eat together. It’s not insignificant that that last example was part of Forest Fringe, a gorgeous instance of transitory artistic community in the midst of this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. This community also offered up countless other small scale theatrical highlights of the year, among them Ira Brand’s delicate contemplation on ageing, a consideration of our addiction to virtual communities in I Wish I Was Lonely, and Deborah Pearson’s haunting The Future Show.
One show that managed to be both small and epic was Grounded, the absolute standout production of the Fringe for me. The remarkable Lucy Ellinson once again looms large over my theatregoing memories of the year after her compelling delivery of George Brant’s tightly written, blistering monologue, all the while imprisoned within the striking grey cube of Oliver Townsend’s design (as an aside, cubes seemed to be big this year – see Chimerica). Ellinson also dazzled, though very differently, in #TORYCORE, a deafening, devastating scream of rage against the destructive policies of the coalition government.
And it was not only the politicians of today who found themselves criticised in theatres this year. Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, a number of pieces have already directly or obliquely approached her legacy. Theatre503’s quickfire offering of short plays produced a decidedly mixed bag, although Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho’s glorious drag queen rendering of the Iron Lady has deservedly lingered in my memory. The difficulty of discussing Thatcher’s legacy was addressed in all its complexity by Mars.tarrab’s brilliantly titled The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian, while perhaps the most striking visual representation of Thatcher came courtesy of Squally Showers, a show that touched on her and her politics only indirectly. Yet somehow, in the image of a performer in a Thatcher mask holding aloft an inflatable globe while surrounded by the detritus of a wild party, Little Bulb wordlessly directed a powerful judgement at the world left to Thatcher’s children.
Squally Showers also provided plentiful helpings of sheer joy, a theatrical quality not to be underestimated. Alongside the charming eccentricity of Little Bulb’s latest show, the Edinburgh Fringe also offered the utterly bonkers but irresistibly endearing Beating McEnroe, which will forever leave me with the glorious memory of Jamie Wood pretending to be a tennis ball. An equally joyous moment to imprint itself on my mind this year emerged from Peter McMaster’s Wuthering Heights, in which I screamed with laughter at the four male performers’ move by move recreation of the dance in the Kate Bush music video, while the final scene of rain-drenched anarchy in the RSC’s As You Like It topped off a production that was a delight from start to finish. And no assessment of theatrical joy in 2013 would be complete without pausing to remember Zawe Ashton’s frankly inspired rendition of ‘Where Are We Now?’ in Narrative, a show that achieved the rare feat of being both absolutely hilarious and intellectually meaty.
While it may not fit neatly within the thematic threads I’m attempting to loosely weave through my overview of the year, any consideration of 2013 has to include a mention for Headlong. The company has had a ridiculously successful 12 months, encompassing the slick, stylish storytelling of Chimerica, a bold and theatrically astute new interpretation of The Seagull and – best of all in my opinion – the complete headfuck of Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke’s stunningly intelligent adaptation of 1984. I’ve missed out on American Psycho, but from the outside it appears to offer a striking end to a fairly extraordinary year for Headlong.
As averse as I am to naming any one production “best”, when looking back over the year I find my mind dragged time and time again back to Mission Drift. For many this hardly counts as a “new” production, having first been seen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, but this summer’s run at the National Theatre’s temporary Shed space was my first opportunity to see The TEAM’s dizzying trip through 400 years of American capitalism. Fast-paced, sexy and beautiful to look at, Mission Drift can also justifiably be described as epic, an adjective that I rarely find myself applying to theatre. Its scope, energy and excitement has become my personal benchmark against which to measure the year’s theatre, and very little in the subsequent months has equalled it.
As I opened this narrative with a beginning, I might as well close with an ending. Looking ahead to 2014, February will see the dismantling of The Shed, whose garish red silhouette on the South Bank has come to stand for vitality and experimentation at the heart of an institution often associated with tradition – as the narrative it spun to celebrate its 50th anniversary did little to challenge. One can only hope that The Shed’s spirit of innovation, together with that of Secret Theatre and Vicky Featherston’s Open Court festival this summer, finds a way to continue into the next 12 months.